Twenty years ago, we had the meme of friendships formed in Internet chat rooms. Some met in real life, some didn’t. Some of those who met in real life made a healthy transition to analog, some didn’t.
I was a little young for that, and frankly a bit scornful of the idea that people would get together with someone they knew only as DarkAura123. Didn’t they know better?
Looking back, it’s easy to see how I missed the joke. I was basically a non-participant, and not only because I was too young. I never even had a screen name, so it was easy to caricature the “DarkAuras” of the online world and whatever real-world misadventures they had that were newsworthy enough to cross my radar.
The internet has come a long way since then. In some parts, the aura has gotten noticeably and undeniably darker. In other parts, people interact with their real names and with video on.
And once I started doing that, I finally saw the elephant. By now, I’ve worked with and for people I’ve only ever seen on video. And I’ve had conversations and formed friendships with plenty of others — some of whom I’ve also met in real life.
During those two decades, in-person meetings have also gotten a lot easier. We got RyanAir and EasyJet alongside Gmail, shared documents, and Zoom, so it was easy to feel connected physically as well as digitally, and for a lot of people to go on treating digital connections as less convenient or genuine or effective than in-person ones.
I’m not about to argue that Zoom is exactly the same as in-person interactions, but I think we’re all learning a lot about our reliance on the local communities we’ve largely neglected as well as the possibilities we can create online.
Two weeks ago, I co-hosted a Zoom breakfast in which the guests comprised two friend groups — some personal, some professional, and some friends of friends. Most of these people have never met in real life and probably won’t. But they might never have met online, either, if we hadn’t all wanted to stretch ourselves a bit.
But I still don’t know the people at the grocery store downtown who sold me the ingredients for our part of the breakfast. And I’m a guest in their town, consuming real and scarce resources in a frightened time after the end of the usual tourist season.
No matter how long this lasts, we won’t forget the memory of global connection — at least digitally. Chances are, we’ll only get better at it. Online-only connections might lose the dark aura that lingers for many people who weren’t often or primarily online before.
But it seems there’s also a big and important invitation to get more connected to the people we can reach out and touch — and whom we’ve finally found ourselves actually living with.